VISION & VALUES: Racial Preferences in Higher Education: What We Know

I opened my Grove City College Bulletin and the first thing I saw was a notice of a non-discriminatory policy. “Grove City College is a private educational institution. It does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, creed, sex, marital status, disability or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs and athletic and other College administrative programs.” Grove City College actually means it. The majority of selective colleges do not. They traffic in discrimination. It’s not called discrimination; it’s called affirmative action or, my preferred term, racial preferences.

There is a rumor afloat that racial preferences are close to dead, headed for the grave. Forces of reaction are winning. The clock is being turned back. Americans are abandoning blacks, indifferent to the inequities that persist. On the political left, especially, hysteria is the coin of the racial realm. The news is always bad. America is either unchanged or actually slipping backwards. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Inequalities do persist; race is still the American dilemma. But racial equality has become the American project, although the drive for that equality often takes forms with which I am in sharp disagreement.

Race Consciousness
I recently received a letter from the newspaper USA Today, asking whether I counted as one of their “minority vendors.” A vendor is anyone with whom the newspaper had done business, including op-ed writers, of which I have been one. The newspaper maintains a racial count to make sure it does not have too many whites doing this or that. I am sure that in weighing the worth of a submitted op-ed piece, color counts heavily.

A friend recently approached his bank for a loan. He filled out a form that asked his race or ethnicity. It was a question he ignored. The loan officer filled it in for him; he had to by law. My friend’s color was at least as important as his credit history. Look in any direction in this country and color counts. We remain an extremely color-conscious nation. In arguing for color-neutral policies, I’m often accused of being deaf, dumb and blind, harboring the illusion that racial discrimination is a thing of the past and that racial equality reigns. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely, in my view, because we are such a race-conscious nation, that I think that all of this labeling and sorting is so very dangerous.

Why are we underscoring the importance of race, the importance of color, when we have had such a terrible history of American apartheid? Stick people in ethnic and racial categories and inevitably a hierarchy develops. Some groups will be treated better than others. True racial equality demands that all Americans be treated as distinctive individuals, that color takes a back seat to character, as Martin Luther King, Jr. (in different words) put it.

Higher Education and Race
We are today very far from that point. Race-conscious public policy and thus racial preferences are ubiquitous. But with respect to such preferences in higher education, specifically, at least the conversation is beginning to change. And that change probably accounts for the sense of alarm about the future of affirmative action. Change the framework of debate, and the next thing you know, the policies themselves are in jeopardy.

The sense of alarm-the conviction that racial preferences are under serious and perhaps lethal attack-takes a variety of forms. The New York Times recently ran a story on the extraordinary steps that selective colleges are taking in an effort to recruit academically promising black students. There’s money; there are free trips to colleges, often to attend special promotional weekends to which only blacks are invited. The context for this aggressive recruiting of black students, the New York Times said, was the retreat from affirmative action. The colleges had to find alternative means of insuring a sufficient number of matriculating black students-although no one has ever said what that “sufficient” number is or how it should be measured.

The Educational Testing Service, the creator of the SAT exams, also seems to have the jitters. In the fall of 1999, it came up with a measure of “disadvantage” that would have encouraged colleges to read a combined SAT score of, say, 1000 as if, in fact, it was 1200, if the student was black or considered disadvantaged by a number of other criteria. The plan may now be dead since it provoked considerable outcry, but the message was clear: If outright racial preferences end up in widespread trouble, the Educational Testing Service wants to help colleges find another way of admitting students by racial double standards. The notion that, perhaps, Asians and blacks and whites and Hispanics should meet the same academic criteria was evidently unthinkable.

The nervousness about the future of preferences was apparent, too, in some proposed guidelines issued last spring by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education. OCR questioned all standardized testing, not just the SAT. It labeled as presumptively discriminatory all assessments in which blacks and whites or blacks and Hispanics do worse than whites and Asians. That would mean, of course, that every form of standardized test that measures academic achievement, including those given in the K-12 years, would become suspect.

With respect to higher education, as well, the message from the Office of Civil Rights, was clear. Either preferences stay or the SAT and other such tests go. The federal government will not stand idly by while colleges judge blacks and Hispanics by criteria identical to those which they use with whites and Asians. Of course, in reality, preferences aren’t in any danger of disappearing from the process by which students are admitted to nearly every selective private college. And with respect to public institutions, so far in only three states-California, Texas and Washington-have popular referenda or court decisions declared an end to racial double standards. The University of Michigan is now in court defending its admissions policy. There will be other suits, but at the moment, preferences are alive and well in almost all selective institutions.

Preference Advocates
A much-celebrated book, The Shape of the River by William C. Bowen and Derek Bok, was also a response to the new and mostly mistaken sense of racial preferences under siege. Bowen and Bok are past presidents of Princeton and Harvard respectively, and their widely noticed work was an obvious attempt to lift the flagging spirits of preference advocates by providing allegedly heartening data that had not been available before.

I welcome that data. I’m a data person myself, and hard facts have been in short supply. Since the late 1960s critics have been attacking racial preferences as morally wrong and constitutionally suspect, but until fairly recently little was known about how the process really worked. Exactly how much weight was actually given to racial and ethnic considerations in admissions decisions? The colleges were not willing to say since they believed passionately that preferences were morally right. They were unwilling to stand up and declare, “Here is how it works; these are the criteria by which we judge students.”

From various sources some data were available, which my husband and I used in a chapter entitled “The Higher Learning” in our book, America in Black and White. And now Bowen and Bok have added to that store of factual knowledge which is all to the good. We have been drowning in emotion on the issue of racial preferences, and have been starved for facts. In fact, on questions involving race altogether, there is too much emoting and too little hard data.

That being said, The Shape of the River does not begin to settle the issue of racial preferences in higher education. The media and others were very quick to say “case closed.” Preferences have been shown to work-beautifully. In fact, a couple of columnists even said the Thernstroms’ book is wrong. These columnists spoke too fast. A close reading of the text of The Shape of the River conveys a very different picture than the one that Bowen and Bok themselves tried to draw.

What The Figures Show
To begin with, their own numbers show that race is not just one of the many factors in the admissions process at highly selective schools. Race is often the decisive factor, with the result that these schools are clearly violating the constitutional standards governing the use of racial considerations in university admissions that were laid down by the Supreme Court more than 20 years ago in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Race-driven admissions, the Supreme Court said, are not lawful. Schools can use race only as one factor among many-a standard violated by almost every selective college in the nation.

Let’s look at some numbers from Bowen and Bok. They presented data from 28 very selective schools, most of them private, and examined the experience of students who entered one of these elite schools in either 1976 or 1989. Much of their argument, however, rested on data from the five colleges that they studied intensively, all of them private.

On the question of how heavily those colleges weighed race in considering applicants for the fall of 1989, here are the figures they give us. Among applicants with SAT scores in the 1200 to 1249 range, 60% of blacks but only 19 % of whites were admitted. In the 1250 to 1300 bracket, the admittance ratio was 75% of blacks, 24% of whites. In the highest range, 1500 and above, all blacks were admitted but only two-thirds of whites. Blacks in the 75th percentile on their SAT scores were getting into schools in which the average white or Asian was in the 96th percentile. Here we have blatant racial double standards – admission processes that are race-driven. If whites rather than blacks were the recipients of such preferential treatment, black applicants would be headed immediately to court to charge discrimination.

How do black students with weaker academic credentials fare academically on these highly competitive campuses? Not well. (It’s hard to start out so far behind.) At the elite schools that Bowen and Bok studied, the grades of black students on the average were in the 23rd percentile, and that average included black students who needed no preferences to get in. Thus, the grade point averages of those admitted by racial double standards must have been exceedingly weak. In addition, the black dropout rate at the 28 elite institutions chosen by Bowen and Bok was more than three times that of whites-a picture much worse than the national one. If preferential admissions were eliminated, the available data suggest, more black students would end up actually graduating.

It’s important to remember that increasing the number of black college graduates who can qualify for high-skill jobs is the declared aim of preferential admissions, not just simply adding more black faces to the freshman class. The demand for high-skilled jobs in the American economy is often overstated. When you look at a cutting edge company like, most of the people hired are not computer programmers; they shelve and pack books. But it’s the high-skill jobs that pay well. The unskilled in this country have been sinking economically while the highly skilled have been rising. Real racial equality has to mean an increased number of blacks with the knowledge and the skills that good jobs demand, and that means more black students finishing college.

The Hidden Costs of Preferences
The preferential policies championed by the organized civil rights community carry another cost. They stigmatize their beneficiaries. Here is one way to think about the problem. Into the early 1960s almost every Ivy League school had Jewish quotas. They let in only a limited number of Jewish students; most of the Jews who managed to get in were thus super bright. They had to meet unfairly high academic standards. What was the consequence? A stereotype was created: Jews are academically smart. Lowering standards for black students has precisely the opposite effect. It reinforces a pernicious racial stereotype: the notion that blacks can throw a ball but they can’t do math. Is this the road to racial equality in this country?

What happens to preferentially admitted black students after they graduate from schools like Yale and Princeton and the University of Michigan? We don’t actually know because Bowen and Bok couldn’t tell us. They barely used the flawed, inadequate “control group” they had. They needed to look at a group of students who chose a non-elite school, but had the same academic strengths and weaknesses as those who went to, say, Yale, and to compare the fate of the two groups over time. Did Yale turn out to give them a long-term brand-name advantage in the economic marketplace? My husband and I looked at lists of successful African Americans in a variety of arenas. We were struck by how many went to non-elite colleges. Indeed, a just released paper by two economists suggests our non-scientific assessment was right. In this wonderfully fluid country of ours, people start out from all sorts of schools.

African American students at places like Columbia, Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania do go on to professional schools in the large numbers Bowen and Bok show, but racial preferences given at law schools and medical schools are even heavier than those at the elite colleges. Again, the preferentially admitted students do not do well. For instance, a national study looked at preferentially admitted black students entering law school in 1991, and found that 43% of those who were preferentially admitted across the nation either dropped out of law school or failed to pass the bar exam after six tries over three years. That looks like a failed social policy. Bowen and Bok in their 700 pages did not even mention the bar exam or medical board passage rates. The law school picture makes a basic point. When black and Hispanic students enter highly competitive schools underprepared for the work, they don’t fare well. It’s too late for most of these students to catch up. College admissions officers who sign on to the racial double standards may feel good about their seeming commitment to racial equality. But in fact the road to equality is much tougher than they are willing to admit, and racial preferences do very little for their intended beneficiaries. They are not a true civil rights strategy. They are a fraudulent quick fix for a problem that does not lend itself to quick fixes-namely, the racial gap in academic performance in the elementary and secondary school years.

The Root of Inequality – K Through 12
So much attention is paid to the issue of preferential admissions in colleges and universities. All eyes have been on what to do with the students at age 17 or 18 when they are applying for colleges. It’s been too painful to talk about the real issue: the tiny pool of African American students whose academic performance qualifies them for admission to the highly competitive schools. But if we don’t talk about it, we can’t fix it. Here are some appalling facts. Data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the nation’s report card on how American students are doing, show that black students, on average, at age 17 are reading at the level of the typical white 13 year-old. The picture is even worse in science. This is a story that crosses the lines of social class. Moreover, scores have actually dropped since 1988, for reasons no one knows. One of the most striking facts in our book is that black students from families earning over $70,000 a year are doing worse on their SATs than white students from families earning less than $10,000 per year.

But here is the good news. The problem is now openly acknowledged. The conversation about strategies for real change has begun. My husband and I, in America in Black and White, were the first to have the data on the racial gap in academic performance, I believe. Since then others-including the College Board-have written on the subject, and it is being openly discussed in the media. Do we know how to close the racial gap in academic achievement in those K-12 years? I believe we do. We must insist upon high standards, accountability, a disciplined atmosphere, principals who are instructional leaders and can choose their team of teachers, as well as control their budgets. Schools should focus on the core subjects: history, science, math, English. Low-income students receiving a poor education should be able to choose (at public expense) private and parochial, as well as other public schools. Educational reform is bursting out all over in states across the nation, and we will learn from its impact on black and Hispanic children. Already some of the data look promising, especially from Texas.

Some of the data look promising, but many questions remain unanswered. Here is what we know with total certainty, however. Any educational strategy that involves dumbing down expectations for non-Asian minority students-that says to black and Hispanic students, we don’t expect you to do as well as whites and Asians-is demeaning. It doesn’t matter whether those double standards and lower expectations are in the form of preferential admissions at colleges or are curricular materials that assume that black students think and learn differently and cannot master math at the same level of competency as Asians. Any such lowering of expectations is patronizing and it’s likely to perpetuate the status quo-the racial gap in academic achievement.

Racial equality in America will be an unattainable ideal as long as that gap persists. We must close it. K-12 education should be the civil rights cause today. We will know that the civil rights organizations have become, once again, true advocates for equality when they stop their drive for racial double standards and turn their full attention to making sure black and Hispanic youngsters enter college or the workplace with the same skills their white and Asian peers possess.

About Abigail Thernstrom

Dr. Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. She is also a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, a position to which she was appointed by Governor Weld in 1995. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University's Department of Government in 1975. She is the co-author (with her husband, Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom) of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Her 1987 book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights won four prestigious awards, including a prize from the American Bar Association. Dr. Thernstrom serves on the boards of the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Institute for Justice, Mass Insight and the Education Leaders Council.

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About Abigail Thernstrom

Dr. Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. She is also a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, a position to which she was appointed by Governor Weld in 1995. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University's Department of Government in 1975. She is the co-author (with her husband, Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom) of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Her 1987 book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights won four prestigious awards, including a prize from the American Bar Association. Dr. Thernstrom serves on the boards of the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Institute for Justice, Mass Insight and the Education Leaders Council.